It is why we see so many variations on three at the back in the Premiership, though it is usually a trio of big centre- halves, as pioneered by George Graham for Arsenal a decade ago, where the strikers are "passed on" across the back line, rather than two markers being employed with one spare man, as is the European preference and which foreign influences are attempting to instil.
It is how Glenn Hoddle would like to play, as he showed in experimenting with the Liverpool midfield player Jamie Redknapp in the Under-21 match against Switzerland on Tuesday night. He believes, long-term, that a midfield player would best perform the role for the range of attacking, passing options it gives.
What happened last night in Berne, though, was more where England are currently: three defenders given areas to patrol rather than specific men to mark. It takes away some of the effectiveness of the position with the sweeper occupied defensively so much. That was especially the case as the new Swiss manager, Gilbert Gress, played three forwards to counter the system.
The Swiss actually played to the sweeper's potential the better, as seen when the run from deep and pass to Ciriaco Szforza by their own spare man, Murat Yakin, began the passage of play which brought the home side's first-half goal. Rio Ferdinand, by contrast, struggled to move forward in the way he had on his impressive debut as a substitute against Cameroon.
Ferdinand is a highly promising defender but not yet ready to dictate play from the back. He may well acquire the confidence and presence to carry it off but it is asking too much for the forthcoming World Cup finals. The experience of going may well benefit him, as long as England's tried and trusted, such as Tony Adams, are fit enough to nurse him through.
Hoddle, however, was pleased enough with Ferdinand's contribution. "He has gained a bit of experience of playing international football away from home and come through OK," said Hoddle afterwards. "He has had to deal with three up which he's not done for some time which was useful for him. He's defended as well as anybody."
Redknapp did his best the night before in the same position but a different role and earned some praise from the Under-21 coach, Peter Taylor, for his anticipation. "He got into good defensive positions and read lots of through balls," Taylor said. Redknapp himself added that he had enjoyed the experience. "I'll have a go at anything," he said.
There were reservations he could only hint at, though. "It's Catch-22, really," he added. "It's another string to my bow but I feel I've done my bit as a midfield player." Though his agreement to fulfil the role will have earned him more brownie points than Chris Sutton can ever hope to accumulate, he must be concerned that his immediate aim is to get into the World Cup squad but that he has not had a proper chance to enhance his claim.
Try as he might to edge England towards a more innovative system, Hoddle is going to have to settle short-term for a solid defender who does the basics well and can pass the ball simply. The problem in fact, Glenn Hoddle may feel, is that he does not have a Glenn Hoddle to play there.Reuse content